Friday, June 25, 2010


All we have to do now
Is take these lies
And make them true somehow
--George Michael

Alla Vasilievna wears the same white shirt with the same beaded necklace every day. She has short, dyed blond hair that she pulls while she's talking. She's at once a cosmopolitan world traveler and a deeply nationalistic Russian (unconscious racist overtones and all). And she's a terrific Russian teacher.

Yesterday's topic of discussion was freedom.

Alla Vasilievna asked us all what freedom means to us. Lena, a Cornell student and daughter of Russian immigrants to the US, said freedom is the opportunity to make of your career and your life whatever you want to. Tamara, a history professor from Germany, pointed out that poor people aren’t free because they don’t have the same choices rich people have. Terry, a native of Trinidad-Tobago now living in Washington, DC, said that he has very little, but that he is freer than people who are in slavery to material items. And Pavel, a lawyer from the Czech Republic, said that he doesn’t feel free in Russia because he always has to carry papers with him and because someone refused to sell him beer when a policeman was nearby.

And then, animatedly pulling at her hair, Alla Vasilievna explained that to the Russian psyche, freedom is not an obviously and inherently good construct in the same way that it is to people from some other countries. There is a fear, she said, of unchecked freedom, of anarchy. The idea of the “will” is an ancient one in Russian culture, but the word for “freedom” entered the language more recently and is not understood to have a necessarily positive connotation.

Alla Vasilievna also drew a distinction between personal freedom and political freedom. Personal freedom, she said, is the freedom to choose what you do, where you go, who you marry, etc. Political freedom includes things like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. According to Alla Vasilievna, personal freedom is important to Russians, but political freedom is "not as interesting." When I pressed her, saying the line is not very clear and using freedom of speech as an example, she even went so far as to say that as a Russian, she felt just as free under Communism as she does now, because she still had personal choices about her career, her family, and the rest of her personal life, and government is another realm altogether.

Now, I'm not a Russian, and I get that I can probably never completely overcome my own cultural upbringing and fully grasp another culture. But is this a bit of a stretch in defense of the Russian people? Alla Vasilievna added that Russians feel free because their country is so large and they have myriad options for travel or living within their own country, unlike smaller countries with close boundaries. And then she capped off her defense by asking each of us what we do when the sign says "don't walk" but there are no cars in sight? Apparently Russians tend to walk, but people from other European countries wait for the light to change. "Who is more free," she asked?

Today we talked about religion (that's a topic for another post ... or hundred posts). Alla Vasilievna mentioned that she is Russian Orthodox, and I asked her about practicing under Communism. She said that she went to church secretly because she knew that if she was caught, she could lose her job at the university or compromise opportunities for advancement. Which sounds to me, with my American predispositions about freedom of religion, like an infringement of personal freedom.

And yet, I believe Alla Vasilievna. I don't know to what extent she represents the rest of her country, but I believe that she secretly attended church and felt somehow personally free at the same time. And I'm fascinated by the idea that in this country, the lines between church and state, between personal and political freedom may not necessarily be drawn more thinly or thickly than in a place like America, but rather on another plane altogether.


lisa'sblog said...

Allie, I love that you're there. And I love that you wouldn't mind it if some life-direction clarity came to you. :) Why not? If NY and Russia can't give it to us, what can? I just read the story about the kid who's walking across the US. Sigh. What I wouldn't give some days....

Liz said...

Allie, this is so fascinating. Sounds like you are, as you always do, really diving in. So glad to hear it. Keep the insights coming :) so interesting to read. Miss you!!